Why can’t we be friends?

Web sites are an important marketing tool. There’s no doubt about it. Most of us couldn’t imagine the world without the Web anymore, myself included. But I’ve often heard people say that it’s important for companies to keep their Web content fresh and user-friendly, and it’s always irked me. The fresh part seems fairly simple to achieve with regular updates and evaluations of the site. But the user-friendly part is more complicated. I agree that it’s important, but what does that mean?

I’ve heard the term “user-friendly” used so often in reference to Web sites in my IMC courses that it almost sounds cliche. Jakob Nielsen — a consultant for WebReference.com, an encyclopedia-style Web site about using the Internet — indicates that user-friendly Web sites should:

  • Incorporate multimedia only when it’s appropriate for the audience.
  • Include accommodations for users who aren’t tech-savvy.
  • Adapt to the user’s connection speed and bandwidth.
  • Include accurate, easy-to-read tools and prompts.

It all sounds like good advice, but from my perspective, a Web site’s user-friendliness varies depending on what you’re looking for.  For example, the Web site for Blue Moon Brewing Company is one of my favorites. It’s aesthetically-pleasing. It has great interactive, multimedia tools. It features a lot of up-to-date information about the company’s history and its products. You can buy merchandise quickly and easily online, and you can find detailed information about how to contact the company in a variety of ways.

Blue Moon's Pumplin Ale page

But there’s no easy way to find out where to find out where the company’s products are sold. And if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not very user-friendly.

The Web site for Nantucket Nectars offers a similar example. My best friend loves the company’s juice, but she lives two hours away. The company’s Web site lists 13 different retailers where its products can be found in the Central region of the U.S. — which includes West Virginia — but it’s not a complete list. It doesn’t list the stores where I’ve bought the juice, and it doesn’t list any retailers in her area. A map tool that would allow customers to find the nearest retailer by ZIP code would be much more user-friendly and increase her likelihood of buying the juice, especially since she travels for work and would likely go out of her way to get it if she knew where to find it.

nantucket

The top five Web sites on MediaWeek’s 2007 Digital Hot List were Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, TMZ and Disney, in that order. And user-friendliness was cited as one reason for their popularity. Personally, I think it’s probably easier to make social-networking sites universally user-friendly — as users are typically more interested in the type of content and tools available, rather than seeking specific information — than it is for a company-specific site for a product or service. What do you think makes a site user-friendly? And what sites do you consider user-friendly?

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